Most European countries have committed to reducing landfill usage through strong recycling policies
  • Glass recycling in the U.S. is down due to COVID-19 and weak laws.
  • Reused and recycled glass is cheaper to produce than making new glass from raw materials.
  • European countries outstrip the U.S. in recycling glass due to supportive policies, decreasing landfill space and rising landfill rates.                                                           

Glass is an ideal product to recycle and reuse. Making it produces relatively few emissions, it’s easy to sterilize and it’s cheaper to recycle or reuse than to make new glass bottles and jars from raw materials. 

The rub is this: There’s now a shortage of raw recycled glass, due in part to COVID-19, but more so because most countries, including the United States, lack effective laws to enforce glass recycling.

“We can do better. There are tons of glass needlessly going to landfills that we can otherwise turn into new bottles and jars,” Scott DeFife, president of the trade group Glass Packaging Institute (GPI), told Karma.

The U.S. recycles only about 34% of the glass it uses annually, while 58% ends up in landfills. That’s a far cry from the numbers in Scandinavia — Sweden, Denmark and Norway — where the rates for each country in the region are close to 90% or more. The U.S. is more in line with Greece, at 36%, and well below France, at 78%, and the U.K., at 68%.

Even more damning for the U.S. is that the percentage of glass recycled in Spain (with a 72% recycling rate) and the U.K. has doubled and tripled, respectively, in the past 25 years, while the U.S. percentage has barely changed, according to Chemical & Engineering News. The higher recycling rates in many European countries are driven by supportive policies, declining landfill availability and rising landfill costs, according to the multinational Owens Corning, one of the world’s largest consumers of recycled glass.

In the short term, what has also caused the scarcity of recycled glass in the U.S. has been the temporary suspension of bottle collection in an attempt to dampen COVID-19 infection rates. Some states with so-called bottle bills, of which there are 10, allowed grocery stores and redemption centers to pause collection of containers for soda, beer, water, coffee and tea, which caused a dip in glass recycling in the second quarter. According to the Financial Times, the inbound supply of glass from New York and New Jersey between January and April was down 62%. Supplies dropped 38% in eastern Pennsylvania and 34% in Oregon.

Two bottle-bill states, Iowa and California, will resume collections in July and August, respectively.

The larger problem in the U.S. is how glass containers are collected. To be effective, what’s needed is a nationwide collection system in which consumers separate used glass for pickup by haulers who then take it to glass recycling centers where it’s recycled. So far, there’s been a lack of political will in the U.S. to recycle. In states with bottle bills, the glass recycling rate is 98%, noted Chemical & Engineering News.

Companies like Owens Corning, which work with customers to increase recycling, have picked up some of the slack. The multinational consumed almost 1.3 billion pounds of recycled glass globally last year.

“We are committed to developing robust circular economy business models through both increased use of recycled materials and practical end-of-life solutions for our products,” Frank O’Brien-Bernini, vice president and chief sustainability officer at Owens Corning, told Karma. “It is our aspiration that every raw material or resource extracted for our products and processes remain in the economy indefinitely.”